Eight science policies at stake this Election Day

With flipping districts come flipping issues.

voting at the polls
This year's ballots could shift nationwide science policy.Arnaud Jaegers/Unsplash

Science doesn't typically drive voters to the polls. Just consider this: Most Americans agree that the government isn't doing enough to protect the environment, yet neither curbing climate change nor ecological protection has yet cracked the list of America's top 10 policy priorities, according to Pew Research. But even without a public push from the majority, the results of next week's midterm elections could have a lasting impact on the federal government's science and tech priorities.

Enough House and Senate seats are on the ballot to flip legislative control—though a House swap is more likely. FiveThirtyEight says there's an an 85-percent chance that the lower chamber will change hands, and the Cook Political Report has marked 49 races as toss-ups.

A sweeping change could reset the agenda on dozens of issues, including incentivizing renewable-energy efforts and protecting net neutrality. “One of the primary things we would see immediately would be issues surrounding the environment and climate change playing out in oversight hearings,” says Joanne Carney, head of government relations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

We combed through the voting records and committee hearing agendas of the current Congress to determine what issues might be on the table if either (or both) of the chambers flip.

Extended life for wildlife protections

This year, Congress called for an overhaul of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, landmark legislation that established a listing-and-protection system for at-risk plants and animals. Current representatives contend that the law is outdated, hurts industry, and flat-out isn't working. In the setup, a species leaves the list when its population rebounds, but less than 3 percent of 2,493 species have been delisted, a fact that some cite as evidence that the law has failed to protect wildlife. Conservationists counter that tweaks to the legislation—even minor ones—will leave even more species exposed to threats.

The House Committee on Natural Resources sent five ESA-editing bills to the full House in September. Among other changes, the package of laws would require regulators to consider both scientific data and economic cost of listing a species as endangered, limit the ability to sue for ESA breaches, and give local governments more control over protection decisions. None of the measures will see a full floor vote before Election Day.

A lift for wind

wind turbines
A wind turbine near the cost of San Juan, Puerto Rico.Clean Energy Group/Clean Energy States Alliance / Flickr Creative Commons

In September, the House passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, which supports the development of safer, cheaper, and more efficient reactors (or "advanced nuclear reactors"). Despite this show of bipartisanship, the House remains divided on fossil fuels and the role of renewables like solar and wind. During the current Congress, dozens of bills supporting more investment in alternative-energy infrastructure and jobs have faltered.

One of the measures that could have a chance come 2019 is the Offshore Wind for Territories Act, which would authorize wind farms in federal waters off American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Many of these territories have little or no fossil-fuel resources, so incentivizing renewables could create a substantial boost in local energy security; for example, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that Puerto Rico currently taps only 14 percent of its potential wind energy. The House Committee on Natural Resources unanimously passed the bill, introduced by Guam representative Madeleine Bordallo, this past September. Next, it heads to the full floor.

Rolling back net-neutrality rollbacks

Early this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to dismantle Obama-era net neutrality provisions. Generally speaking, net neutrality is the idea that your internet service provider (ISP) shouldn't have undue control over what you do or see online—that it can't prioritize certain content or vary speeds based on what you're looking at, among other protections.

This past May, Senators voted to overturn the FCC's rule-change using a measure called the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows Congress to disapprove regulations issued by federal agencies. For a CRA effort to succeed, the House must also pass it before Congress adjourns at the end of the year. Otherwise, the review dies. Such a demise is likely, but Chris Lewis, vice president of the nonprofit advocacy group Public Knowledge, is optimistic that newly elected members will support legislation to revive consumer internet protections—which enjoy 91-percent support from the electorate, according to Mozilla data. "Net neutrality is only controversial in Washington," he says.

Keeping farms clean

farmland
Farms like this one tap the Conservation Stewardship Program to fund maintenance of natural resources.USDA / Preston Keres

Currently, the House and Senate are at odds over the farm bill, a centerpiece of national agricultural policy. The legislation, which goes up for renewal every five years, is often controversial because it can influence policies beyond cultivation, such as environmental regulations, conservation, and food safety.

House and Senate members have been in stalemate for weeks over differences in their respective versions of the bill. A reconciled law and a vote before Election Day is a longshot, but the delay could also put the kibosh on some land- and water-protection rollbacks. The current version of the House bill cuts land-preservation efforts, including the Conservation Stewardship Program, a measure that protects some 70 million acres by incentivizing farmers to preserve workable land. The proposed House bill also allows farmers to bypass the permitting process for using pesticides around water sources, and bars local governments from restricting the use of certain chemicals.

Checking the EPA

In March, the House passed the SENSE Act, a law that would exempt power plants that burn waste coal from emissions caps outlined in Obama-era EPA rules. President Trump has also been using his executive authority to loosen regulations; the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, proposed in August, would replace President Obama's Clean Power Plan and give states the freedom to choose how they regulate plants' greenhouse gases and pollutants like smog, soot, and mercury.

But the executive branch could face some pushback from a new Congress. "I think the Congress's ability to exact oversight with a Democratic House is going to be pretty significant," says Rob Cowin, director of government affairs for climate and energy at nonprofit advocacy group the Union of Concerned Scientists. Some members have already been vocal about efforts to loosen regulations. In April, legislators requested a hearing on reports that changes to the toxic-chemical management program could lead to asbestos re-emerging in more consumer products. And just this month, two dozen Democrats sent the EPA a letter urging the agency to extend the public comment period for a proposed rule to slacken methane-emissions standards.

Taxing carbon

Refinery in West Bountiful
A refinery in West Bountiful, Utah.Patrick Hendry / Unsplash

The creation of a carbon tax, a fee levied on emissions from burning fossil fuels, has been a partisan lightning rod for decades. Most recently, this past July, the House passed a non-binding resolution saying such a tax would be "detrimental to American families and businesses, and is not in the best interest of the United States." The move was largely symbolic, since such resolutions can't progress into law.

Just days later, Florida representative Carlos Curbelo introduced a bill that proposes a such a tax. If adopted, the measure would set the country up to meet or exceed goals set out in the Paris Agreement and fund much-needed improvements to U.S. transportation infrastructure. A Columbia University Center for Global Energy Policy analysis found the plan would result in a 27-32 percent emissions reduction by 2025 and a 30-40 percent dip by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. While the Natural Resources Defense Council casts the bill is a good conversation starter, the group believes that the more-ambitious American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act of 2018, introduced in February, would have an even greater impact.

Funding gun-violence research

After a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 students and staff members in February, the 1996 Dickey Amendment was thrust once again into the spotlight. The provision prohibits the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from advocating for or promoting gun control. In March, Congress reached a deal on a spending bill—which the president also signed—that included language clarifying that the agencies can, in fact, conduct research on gun violence. But the current Congress has yet to allocate specific funds to do so. In July, the House Appropriations Committee blocked a proposal by New York Representative Nita Lowey that would have designated $10 million in CDC funding.

Regulations to protect personal data

After reports of Russian social-media interference in the 2016 election, both Representatives and Senators have criticized the ability of technology companies to police their own platforms and protect user data. Yet, congressional hearings with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey revealed a serious knowledge gap about an evolving landscape. While the E.U. has adopted the massive General Data Protection Regulation to safeguard user privacy, U.S. officials have been slow to act.

Congress has put forth half a dozen bills but has yet to vote on any. The CONSENT Act, introduced by Senators Edward Markey (Massachusetts) and Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) in April, would require websites to get users' consent to share, use, or sell their personal information. This month, California Representative Ro Khanna, whose home district includes Silicon Valley, proposed an "Internet Bill of Rights" to move the conversation along.

New blood may be more likely to tackle data protection. The Millennial Action Project, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for young policymakers, estimates that about 100 millennials are running for Congress this year. "What you get with younger elected officials is they grew up with technology so they probably have greater facility with the technology itself," says Public Knowledge's Lewis. The Trump administration has also signaled its interest in data privacy: In September, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency put out a request for comment on "ways to to advance consumer privacy while protecting prosperity and innovation." Legislation could come next year.